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Miller: Funding public media

What a wonderful opportunity for congressional Republicans this session to go after things they simply don’t like – all under the guise of budget cutting. Yes, there needs to be some trimming and belt-tightening in this continually soft economy, but instead of going after real money in, say, defense or in the billions in tax breaks given to highly profitable oil companies, they target things like … Sesame Street.

Yep, this week Republicans turned once again to one of their favorite bogeyman: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio and some 1,300 public radio stations nationwide (including KUNC, which we get here thanks to Summit Public Radio). It’s only $445 million for next fiscal year – the equivalent of a rounding error in the president’s proposed $3.73 trillion budget – but the notion of public funding for media galls many conservatives, many of whom also believe these public media lean left.

As someone who’s always worked in for-profit media, it’s difficult for me to imagine a climate where one simply didn’t have to worry about the bottom line all the time. In the case of public media, that’s not really the case, either, since the federal funding from CPB is just a part of the equation and there’s still plenty of hustling for donor dollars to make up the rest. (Federal funding for National Public Radio, for example, represents only about 2 percent of its revenue, according to its website; individual stations such as KUNC rely on CPB for about 10 percent of their revenue).



What federal funding does for public broadcasting, then, is supplement it and allow us to enjoy less commercially viable programs that are still intrinsically valuable – usually in terms of education. Wednesday night is often “Nova” night in our house, when we give “SpongeBob” a rest to listen to scientists talking about our world – commercial free. Like many people in Summit County, I listen to KUNC in my car and enjoy the NPR programming like the news, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” Is it left leaning? I don’t think so – unless those who level that accusation think that’s the case simply because there isn’t a lot of right-wing rhetoric on display.

Leaving that aside: What is the case for public funding of media? The U.S. is pretty chintzy with this compared to other countries. Great Britain, for example, funds the BBC through a license fee levied on all households – to the tune of about $235 per household per year. At $445 million, CPB’s cost is a bit more than $3 a year for every U.S. taxpayer – not a lot, although, granted, $445 million is not an inconsequential sum. For another comparison, though, the Washington Post estimates the U.S. military spends a little more than that each year … on marching and other military bands. Call me crazy, but I’d whack those before going after public broadcasting!



All that aside, I can’t help but think larger organizations like NPR and PBS would be better off without federal funding. That way, they can pursue their mission with donor and corporate funding only and be rid of the constant Republican carping. The funding for all those smaller radio stations, though, would be tough to make up. Listen to KUNC with any regularity and you know that the fundraising drives seem nearly continuous. With the plug pulled on the revenue from CPB, it’s hard to imagine stations like this being able to continue in their present form. Would listening to “World Cafe” be the same interspersed with furniture store ads and spots for Wacky Joe’s Car Stereo?

Probably not. I don’t believe legislators looking to pull the plug on this funding have given a lot of thought to the value of public broadcasting – particularly in a media landscape where just a few islands of commercial-free sanity can be balm to the listener’s soul. A reliable stream of funding for the distribution of information valuable to the public discourse also ensures the source itself is a reliable fixture in a community. Doing away with it all to save a relatively small amount of money cheapens our culture and discounts the value millions of Americans see in this kind of media.

But hey, at least we’ll have those marching bands …

Summit Daily editor Alex Miller can be reached at amiller@summitdaily.com or (970) 668-4618.


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